John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné: Volume One: 1956-1974

Reviewed by Andrew Berardini

Each filed photograph’s marked and numbered, patterning easily: year and sequence. Careful notations, sightings, references, inferences and disappearances are all carefully constructed, exhaustive and seemingly unfailing, though with some curious inclusions.
We do not know why this streetcorner is important, but it is, if only because it’s here. We do not know if these simple signs/directions are meant to be obeyed, a hint of irony, some potential cheek-tonguing. Maybe not. All these scientific studies are emptied of hypotheses, the potentially verboten redacted.
This body of evidence, this collection clues to only more collections of clues ad infinitum, an assembly of information for no discernable purposes. A few tattered pages slipped into the images, a list of assignments, journal entries, further hints perhaps.
Here is the evidence, but what is the crime. Little is happening. But something has happened.
If you look at anything long enough, it becomes meaningful.
In the beginning there are all these dribs and draubs of paint, dabblings, attempts, imitations, some curiosities emerge, bits of body parts, a shoulder, a nose. Fragments of pictures, assiduously photographed (all listed as lost) lead to snapshots of street-corners in National City, California. On a single page, there is a carefully gathered photographs of the back of every truck on a single drive. Somebody disappeared the painter. In 1970 he’s cremated, but once vanished the evidence continues, continually mounting, driving thickly home that if nothing else, there’s is a lot of it.
Arriving at the secret messages in 1973, we’ve no doubt of a conspiracy at work.
The normalcy of these images is not to be trusted. The attempts at snapping a bouncing ball in the center of the photograph, the choices of which fruits or beans or random snapshots are preferable to one person or another, the collections of clouds, the smokey attempts to mimic them, the tiny corners excerpted from paintings on large white fields, each with their own scattered body parts. There is something sinister in all these simple actions, a hidden tension. There is sense layered on nonsense, the appearance of the discursive merely a thin masquerade for the truly intuitive. They seem like they’d be easy to perceive, but they resist, quietly. They are unbalanced. Not to be trusted.
This does not diminish their value, as evidence or otherwise.
To Catalogue
A catalogue is an exhaustive list. We use them in art to create a set, to close things off, evidence of a time, and for marketeers, an acknowledgement of what’s real and denial of all things false. This catalogue here possesses a simplicity and completeness that both lends itself to the material and also makes it invaluable.
This catalogue is a catalogue raisonne, a ‘list explained’: the thorough notes, the inventories of exhibits, articles, the gnomic explanations of the guilty party about each piece, a surprisingly (mostly) reader-friendly reckoning at the front from a noted academic, an expert witness of nearly infallible authority and thus valuable imprimatur. A long interview rife with personal biography, little teases of humanity regarding the responsible party, our suspect: John Baldessari.
It breaks off in 1974, after that, Baldessari discovered boxes and boxes of evidence, stock stills from moving pictures and the story changed. The plot pointed to intriguing new schemes.
With all its investigative completeness, the next studied volume will likely prove another page-turner.
I suspect the cremated painter isn’t dead. He may yet reappear.
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Ed. Patrick Pardo and Robert Dean; Essay by Yve-Alain Bois, interview with John Baldessari by Christopher Knight; John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné: Volume One: 1956-1974, (Yale University Press, 2012) 
Images: Cover of John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonné: Volume One: 1956-1974, Cigar Smoke to Match Clouds That Are Different (1972-73), and Pages from John Baldessari Catalogue Raisonne v. 1; 1956-1974. Courtesy of Yale University Press